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Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses- Rowan Williams

May 23, 2017

As most of his sermons are unscripted, these are rare.

His sermon on the Annunciation is highly speculative. Even if his wife told him about her feelings during pregnancy, he can’t get into the mind of Mary.

Williams reflects on peace, war, justice, sexuality, wholeness, suffering, loneliness, vocation, and mission. Sermons from the church year and practical matters of Christian spirituality such as intercessory prayer and Bible study are also included; still others celebrate great Christian figures across the centuries, from the Anglo-Saxon saints to Michael Ramsey and T. S. Eliot.


Iris Murdoch, in her novel The Black Prince, makes one of her characters say, “Curiosity is a kind of charity.” The falsity of that is as apparent in the book as it is in our experience. It is an un­scrupulous rationalization of the lust for power which can be hid­den in curiosity, the diabolical thirst to know without loving, to substitute knowing for loving. Anyone entering on a way of life that will involve hearing other people’s secrets must become aware of the deeply ambivalent element present in his or her motivation: the desire for power over other people that priests, teachers, psy­chiatrists, and many others are so often afraid to admit to them­selves. People are going to put their hearts in your hands again and again, and unless you face the massive dangers at work here—recognize that you are probably the sort of person who needs to see the hearts of others—the consequences will be de­structive. You won’t know how much damage you can do.

But don’t think of this as an exclusively negative thing. People open their hearts because they have to, and people ask others to open their hearts because they have to. All of them, on both sides, are compelled by the magnetism of truth. I may dread the rejection of the person to whom I confess, but can I live with lies, fantasies, and public roles? I may fear the damage my prob­ing may do, but can I be content if my friend offers me only a su­perficial mask? In any case, these things cannot and will not be forced; it’s only by long, careful practice in both speaking and lis­tening that we shall recognize “right moments” and respond with accurate sensitivity to the needs of someone else. And one of the things that is required from the “counselor” is a kind of pastoral imagination—the ability not to see others in terms of me, but me in terms of others; not just relating their experiences to my simi­lar ones, but trying to sense the experience as they are experi­encing it, seeing with their eyes, feeling with their nerves. This is the “ecstasy” of love, the ability (as St. Thomas Aquinas said) to “go out” from yourself and to understand others as they are in themselves and for their own sake.

And it is of course God who teaches us this imagination. For God’s knowledge of us is not the dreadful, stifling omnipresence

I spoke of earlier, the all-seeing eye in the middle of heaven.

When St. John tells us that our Lord “knew what was in us,” he is pointing to something very different, what Langland in Piers

Plowman called “kind” knowing—knowing by kinship—and what scholastic philosophers called (unpromisingly) “knowledge by connaturality”: feeling with our nerves, seeing with our eyes, “made like us in every respect except sin.” This is the complete ecstasy of God, entering into the morass of human subjectivity and human motivation. Whatever we may want to say in detail about the doctrine of the Incarnation, it seems to me an indis­pensable part of our gospel to be able to say that God has been, and is, “inside” human motivation. “He knoweth whereof we are made.” He is capable of this unparalleled act of imagination, of knowing what it is to be a creature as well as creator, knowing what it is to be in doubt, in agony, in temptation, in darkness and abandonment, in hell. There is the lesson of ecstasy, under­standing the other in the other’s own terms.

Yet perhaps the doubt remains. W H. Auden, in his “oratorio” For the Time Being, makes Herod say that if God has lived as a hu­man being, he will now expect everyone to live a perfect life be­cause it’s been shown to be possible—a very alarming doctrine indeed, and a not unfamiliar one in some kinds of Christianity. God can say to us, “I’ve had this experience but it didn’t defeat me,” which will be a very depressing thing to hear on the day of judgment. But surely we have our corrective in the gospels them­selves. Not only do we have the grand schematic doctrinal story of the God who identifies with humanity, we have also the par­ticular local history of Jesus of Nazareth, whose compassion was such that he could be represented by St. John as saying, “I judge no one.” It is usually frivolous, if not blasphemous, to speculate about Jesus’ state of mind, but it is hard not to feel in our Lord’s responses to the sinful an element of sheer visceral pity. “Where are your accusers? Is there no one who condemns you? Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus was tempted as we are: if Gethsemane gives us any insight, he was tried in ways from which most of us would shrink. And what his struggles seem to have produced was a sense of the precariousness of goodness, love, and fidelity so pro­found and strong that no failure or error could provoke his con­demnation, except the error of those legalists who could not understand that very precariousness. To Christ, the sinner is a victim more than a criminal. He knows what is in us. He is within human motivation and understands just how free and how unfree we are. He knows the measure of our own responsibility better than we ever can ourselves. He is a high priest who knows our weakness and whom, then, we can approach without fear.

The obedience of God’s people is above all else a glad response to that great consistency in the being of God, the law of God’s own life.

So covenant is the promise of God’s faithfulness, and covenant is our response to that faithfulness. Without the provision of the law of God’s being—the self-consistency, the eternal faithfulness of God to his own being—we could not begin to be obedient, we would not know what it was we had to attend to. So if this is a feast of covenant, it is thereby also a feast of obedience.

The life of Jesus is not a series of acts of jumping to attention to commands issued by a holy despot. The obedience of Jesus is the readiness to see the Father’s will in every circumstance, every situation, and every person presented to him, and to respond to it with wholeness of heart at once. The obedience of Jesus lies in seeing the need of the leper or the blind man or the Syrophoeni­cian mother and saying “yes.” That is obedience: it is seeing the situation, seeing the drawing of God’s will in it, and being drawn into response.

God looks at the world and in it sees his own promise. He responds to the needs of the world, knowing that the world can be brought into his light, can be healed and transfigured.

The opposite of flesh is not spirit, but stone: “A rock feels no pain, And an island never cries.”

Frail children of flesh? Yes, because flesh is what hurts. Not only is it simply and literally fragile, the hurts inflicted on what we think of as our spirits are the hurts we have in relations with other fleshly beings, absorbed through our ears and eyes.

Perhaps all this is a bit of what the Ascension Day hymns and prayers mean when they speak of the whole of human nature be­ing raised to heaven in the ascension. If Jesus is the presence of God’s promise in our world, and if the ascension means that, through the power of the resurrection, we now share the same calling as Jesus, seeing in his light and with his eyes, then two things follow. First, we as Christian believers are “in heaven,” but not so as to remove us from earth. Quite the contrary: in the middle of the world’s life, we are given some share in God’s per­spective on things, so that God through us may make his loving faithfulness real and effective here and now. And second, the things and persons of this world are seen in a new way, seen as charged with hope, with a future of glory and of healing. They are seen as if already part of the new heaven and new earth in which God’s purposes have been brought to completion.

Any interest in the diabolical, any so-called expertise in demonology and the analysis of the dark and the absurd, is a failure in faith. If “exorcism” is ever anything more than the proclamation of God’s victory and God’s acceptance, if ever it be­comes a matter of clinical technique, it has entered the conflict on the devil’s terms, attempting to fight again the battle that Christ has won. No one will finally remove for us the risk of darkness, the influx of “black grace”—in Iris Murdoch’s memorable phrase—that inflates our hatreds and pushes even our loves into cruelty. All that can be done is, again and again, to refuse the temptation to rationalize, and turn to the compassionate Word of God. To dramatize and objectify the world’s senseless evil is to yield to its undeniable magnetism and to swell its potential power; and it is destructive enough without that. But to know it as the wounds of Christ is to see without illusion: not the pain but the threat can be healed.

‘My title is a paradox, and people tend to be annoyed by paradoxes — in many ways quite rightly. We suspect them of concealing muddle, and so of representing some kind of intellectual or spiritual cowardice.’

“The real question is about what you are really after: do you want spirituality, mystical experience, inner peace, or do you want God? If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase on God, you are still playing games.”

“The vital significance of the Church in this society, in any human society, is its twofold challenge – first, challenging human reluctance to accept death, and then challenging any human acceptance of death without hope, of death as the end of all meaning. … That is why Jesus’ death is not the end of a story, but the last point in his great struggle to free God into the world.”

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